Brush Writing Takes Form of Art

The traditional skill of calligraphy is brought to life with dance and the inspired sounds of jazz

OFF in a corner, safely out of the path of herding reporters and garrulous marketeers, there sometimes appears something so fearlessly original that it catches you off guard - and renews your faith in human creativity. Japanese calligraphy artist Shunkei Yahagi turns the ancient practice of ``sho,'' or brush writing, into contemporary performance art a breed apart. With buoyant dance-like motions, she paints mural-sized ``interpretations'' of Japanese kanji, or characters, to the winsome improvisations of jazz pianist Makoto Takenaka.

Japanese calligraphy and American jazz?

The time-honored, careful strokes of the former and the modern, chromatic jabs of the latter blend easily in these experts' hands. Mrs. Yahagi, an artist-in-residence at Harvard University, is one of the top female calligraphers in Japan and has exhibited internationally. Mr. Takenaka is a well-known jazz pianist and composer in Japan and an assistant professor at the Berklee College of Music.

Yahagi and Takenaka's most recent collaboration took place last month at a small theater at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dressed formally in a salmon-colored kimono, Yahagi set out with her brushes to decorate six-foot-wide scrolls of white paper taped to the walls, the floor, and to a wooden easel stretching the length of the stage.

Yahagi uses unusually large brushes. The biggest is two feet long with a handle like a billy club and about 10 inches of horse hair dangling from the end.

At first, you held your breath, nervously eyeing her wide sleeves as she swirled the brush in a giant pot of black ink. She raised the brush slightly to drain, and with a rhythmic bounce plopped it onto the easel - not a drop of ink misplaced. Several more masterly strokes completed the character representing ``Winter Wind,'' the first in a series called ``Wind in Four Seasons.''

Spring wind, summer wind, and autumn wind followed, as Takenaka played suitably inclement, now serene, improvisations on the piano off to one side.

Yahagi concentrated on the music before applying her brush to the paper. With knees bent she gently bobbed to the beat, or swayed her head. The rhythmic gestures continued as she painted.

Takenaka watched closely. ``I have to see her rhythm, otherwise the music is just background music, and she doesn't want that. I try to inspire her, and she inspires me,'' he explained in an interview after the performance, which was sponsored by the Japan Society of Boston Inc. and the MIT Japan Program.

Yahagi painted a ``Water Series'' with the characters for water, flow, wave, and sea, as well as a ``Heart Series,'' showing joy, anger, sadness, and pleasure. The kanji, derived from Chinese characters, are highly stylized or ``interpreted'' by Yahagi, though they remain recognizable to readers of Japanese.

On one wall, she painted the text of ``Red Dragon Fly,'' a Japanese children's song, using symbols called hiragana, a cursive form of Japanese.

One especially striking piece was ``Cherry Blossom,'' painted on a long sheet of paper taped to the floor. Yahagi removed her Japanese wooden shoes, revealing traditional white socks, so that she could walk down the paper as she drew. Holding a small brush and ink dish, she ``danced'' to Takenaka's jazzy version of this ancient tune, painting a winding pattern of text that looked like a sea gull's footprints across sand.

At one point, Yahagi stopped to pick up a fatter brush, and drew the character for ``cherry,'' thick and bold. With subtle turns of the wrist, she held fine control over the limp hairs of the brush. ``Cherry Blossom'' ended with a slow upward stroke, perfectly timed to the last note of fading music.

As an indication of her satisfaction with the work, Yahagi stamped her name on the paper with a small wooden block dipped in red ink, then bowed ceremoniously. The audience gave its ``stamp'' of approval with hearty applause.

Shunkei Yahagi and Makoto Takenaka will perform at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston on May 29th at 6:00 p.m. in the Japanese Screen Room.

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